By Stefanie Garber
The Pope has possibly the best job security on the planet. When your only boss is God, you generally lose your job by being “called into the boss’s office”, if you get my drift. For this reason, last week’s announcement that Pope Benedict VXI will resign, effective February 28, shocked the world. No pope has resigned since 1415 and that one went straight to a prison, not exactly voluntarily. So, if you want to be the hottest young thing in your theological discussion group, read on for our handy guide to all things papal:
What, exactly, is the Pope?
The Pope is the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church which becomes hugely impressive when you realise there are just under 2 billion Catholics in the world. To devout followers, the Pope is the successor of Saint Peter, the voice of God on Earth, the main man, the head honcho, the ne plus ultra if we’re being pretentious about it. Pope literally means “father” in Latin, although not literally in life as Catholic clergy are expected to remain celibate. Some popes struggled with this concept, like Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) who fathered seven illegitimate children before he realised “oh right, it’s a metaphor.”
What does he do?
Those 2 billion Catholics we mentioned? The Church teaches them that the Pope is infallible. As in, unable to be proven false. The doctrine of Papal Infallibility means that the teachings of the Pope cannot be wrong and also that you shouldn’t pick an argument with him over the TV remote. This is complicated by the fact that multiple Popes have contradicted one another but none of them can ever be wrong, much like law students. Catholic theologians have developed entire philosophical structures to deal with this issue, which I highly recommend reading if you have time to kill between Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother.
Apart from being the leader of the Catholic faith, the Pope also plays an important role on the international stage. The Pope lives in Vatican City, a district within the city of Rome which is a separate and independent state. Because in Vatican City, the man with the biggest hat gets to be in charge of everything, the Pope is Head of State. However, Vatican City was only established in 1929 which, in the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church, means it’s barely stopped dancing to the Wiggles. Pre Vatican, it was the Holy See which represented the Catholic Church in international relations. So when you hear about the “the Vatican” represented at UN conferences or the Grammys or whatever, it should actually be referred to as the Holy See. And the Pope technically runs that too. Isn’t public international law fun?
The Pope can also beatify people, which means putting them on the road to sainthood (as opposed to beautifying people, which is what L’Oreal does). He also works within the politics of the Church, administering things and giving orders and probably sneakily stamping people with his Papal seal when they’re sleeping on the couch. His other jobs include being Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ and once a year he baptises babies at the Sistine Chapel. Point is, he’s probably too busy to accept your friend request.
How do you get the gig?
The Da Vinci Code may have wildly exaggerated most details about the Catholic Church but one thing it got right is their love of secret meetings. Cardinals love themselves a conclave. When a new Pope has to be chosen, the cardinals lock themselves in a section of the Vatican and order anyone who is not a cardinal to leave (as in, the Master will stand at the door and tell everyone to get lost, but in Latin so it’s less hurtful). Becoming a cardinal takes a long time, and the age of retirement is eighty, so the conclave allows one nurse per cardinal in bad health. And some servants and staff and so on, because cleaning? Ain’t nobody got time for that.
After the area is locked off, anyone who leaves for non-health related reasons cannot return. No one is allowed to communicate with the outside world, by threat of ex-communication, not even if they get tagged in an embarrassing Facebook post. Then…well, essentially, they keep voting by secret ballot until someone gets a two-thirds majority. There are procedures to hurry the process along but ultimately, they just keep voting until someone is Pope.
The Church developed their own communication system long before Carly Rae Jepson started begging people to call her, maybe. After each vote, they burn the ballots with added chemicals so that smoke signals are visible to the crowd in St Peters Square. Dark smoke means the ballot was unsuccessful. White smoke means a Pope has been chosen. Green smoke means someone should send munchies because the curtains are making threats.
Who is our current Pope?
Our current pope is Benedict XVI, christened Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger was given the keys to the Pope-Mobile in 2005 at the grand old age of 78. At a time when the top concern of most people would be which hip to get replaced next, Joseph Ratzinger took on the leadership of one of the world’s largest religions.
Ratzinger was born in Germany in 1927, perfectly timed to be conscripted to the Hitler Youth at age 14, then the German army at 16. Real talk: when you’re a child living under one of the most brutal regimes of the modern era, you do what you’re told. He served in the infantry for two years, the war ended and everyone went back to rebuilding their lives. Specifically, Ratzinger became a Priest, then a famous theologian, then Archbishop, then Prefect and still found time to develop a natty dress sense. See: red prada loafers with papal cassock. Bang on trend!
Ratzinger has faced criticism for his conservative views on birth control, homosexuality, relativism and Islam, which ends up being a decent amount of offended people. He has also been questioned over his role investigating child abuse as a Bishop in Germany and then as Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition, which is a wise rebrand if there ever was one). Richard Dawkins, the atheist philosopher, ran a half-joking, half-serious campaign to have the Pope arrested.
That said, Pope Benedict has also been revered as an academic who sought to bring unity to a divided Church and to make Catholicism relevant to believers in the 21st century. Particularly, his criticisms of consumerism are probably worth reading to the next three year old you see clutching an iPad.
He announced his retirement last week, effective on the 28 February 2012. Presumably, he’ll spend the next day joining a bowls club.
Who will be our next Pope?
While Vatican observers are suggesting it’s likely an African or South American pope will be chosen, nobody knows for sure. But it will be interesting to see what happens when the Voice of God on Earth and the former Voice of God Who Is Also Still On Earth have to share a parking space at the Vatican.